Victims of UPS’s deadly drive for profit
A UPS worker reflects on the sources of violence at a hub that left four workers dead.
ON JUNE 14, a 38-year-old United Parcel Service driver, Jimmy Lam, shot and killed three co-workers, wounded two others and then killed himself at the UPS hub in San Francisco in the Potrero Hill neighborhood.
This tragedy is obviously upsetting for those of us who work at UPS, along with our family and friends. But it doesn't come as a real surprise given the undue stress of the job.
The mass shooting took place as drivers were waiting to start delivering packages in the morning. Benson Louie, Wayne Chan and Mike Lefiti were killed, along with Lam. Xiao Chen and Edgar Perez were treated for gunshot wounds at San Francisco General Hospital and released.
Members of the Teamsters union who work at UPS are reminded daily of management's antagonistic relationship with us. Yet the mainstream media made an issue that Lam had a "grievance with the company"--as if this is unusual.
Lam had filed a grievance--a procedure used to address a violation of the Teamsters-UPS contract--over excessive overtime. In fact, many grievances are filed by workers every day at UPS. The problem is that many are blocked by management and take months, if not years, to resolve, if they ever are.
This stalling by the company is specifically designed to discourage workers from filing grievances or otherwise challenging poor conditions or contract violations. Management also uses harassment to try to intimidate workers from filing.
TO COUNTER bad publicity after the shooting, UPS issued a press statement in the name of CEO and Chairman of the Board David Abney: "The UPS family is deeply saddened by the tragic shooting in San Francisco on Wednesday, when four employees lost their lives. On behalf of all UPSers, I extend sincere condolences to the families of the deceased, and we pray for the speedy recovery of the injured employees."
What is this "UPS family" and does it really exist? Does it include the part-time workers making only $10 an hour working in warehouses and loading trailers, where temperatures in the summer can reach 130 degrees? Management, on the other hand, gets air-conditioned offices.
Does it include package car drivers like Jimmy Lam, who work 12-hour days or longer, with more stops per mile added on to increase work "efficiency"? The result of management piling on work is that some members of the "family" have to work late into the night, only to get up early the next morning and start the process all over again.
Mandatory overtime has become the rule at UPS, and many workers are at the breaking point.
Meanwhile, the company is automating more of its facilities, not to make workers' lives easier, but to increase the pace of the work. Workers load and unload thousands of packages a day. The body starts to break down from all of that lifting.
Workers who have been on the job for years--or even for a short time--often suffer pain from repetitive motion, sickness from breathing in dirty and dusty air, and stress inflicted by management that operates acts in a crisis mode to get the work done so their numbers are acceptable to their superiors.
This toxic work environment hurts not only union workers, but is visible on the faces of the low-level supervisors and managers who fear for their own jobs if they can't meet the targets devised by their bosses. That means they are constantly harassing workers and trying to force them to work faster than before.
Part-time new hires usually quit because the working conditions are so bad and the pay is too low. Meanwhile, supervisors rush around downing energy drinks to do union work in violation of the contract in order to meet their down time--the time when work should be finished.
The work pace is so fast and brutal that some workers learn to "suck it up" and get upset at other workers who don't do the same. Others slow down, realizing the faster they work, the more management will abuse them to work even faster.
ON THE other hand, the world looks sunny for the top executives and major stockholders of UPS. The company is expanding its operations and buying up other corporations around the world.
Meanwhile, UPS's President of U.S. Operations Myron Gray, speaking at the UPS Investor Conference last February, explained how change would drive the logistics network of the future.
Phase One of the new program was ORION, computer software that cut 210 million miles out of the routes driven by UPS drivers in a year, while increasing the average stops per mile by 6 to 9 percent. ORION generated more than $400 million in annual cost savings by extracting more work out of drivers.
But what comes with that is more stress and longer hours on the street for drivers, since they are making more stops per mile. This leads to a lack of any social life outside of UPS, since you can be at work for longer than you are at home, not even excluding sleep.
UPS has also started to retrofit its largest ground facilities and claims automation will contribute to labor savings. Other older facilities will be expanded, but to really increase productivity savings, new facilities, with a higher degree of automation, are being planned--about 70 new package and hub projects around the world.
Gray and the other UPS executives have many reasons to be happy, especially when counted in terms of the dollars in their bank accounts.
According to the Wall Street Journal, top executives got a second pay raise and special stock awards in 2016. At $11.7 million in 2016, CEO David Abney's total compensation was 21 percent higher than the year before.
As the Journal reported, "UPS says the higher salary and one-time grants were designed to keep the company's pay competitive with peers, and to tie more of the compensation to future performance." UPS spokesperson Steve Gaut underlined this last point: "The only way the pay is delivered is if the company performs to the target expectations."
But for UPS workers, this will mean even more speedups, longer hours and cost-cutting on workers' needs, like building cleanliness and well-maintained vehicles and equipment--all so that top management can hit their numbers and get those million-dollar bonuses. We will pay with more work, more stress, less sleep, more injuries and even premature deaths.
Drivers will bear the same pressure that Jimmy Lam did, because of the decisions made at corporate headquarters in Atlanta. That is the bigger tragedy behind this month's horrific shooting in San Francisco, and it will only lead to other workers breaking down, mentally and physically, with all the repercussions that entails.